Indus script

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Indus script
Undeciphered Bronze Age writing
Languages Unknown (see Harappan language)
Time period
3500–1900 BCE[1][2][3]
ISO 15924 Inds, 610
Unicorn seal of Indus Valley, Indian Museum
Seal impression showing a typical inscription of five characters
Collection of seals

The Indus script (also Harappan script) is a corpus of symbols produced by the Indus Valley Civilization during the Kot Diji and Mature Harappan periods between the 35th and 20th centuries BC. Most inscriptions are extremely short. It is not clear if these symbols constitute a script used to record a language, and the subject of whether the Indus symbols were a writing system is controversial. In spite of many attempts at decipherment,[4] it is undeciphered, and no underlying language has been identified. There is no known bilingual inscription. The script does not show any significant changes over time.

The first publication of a seal with Harappan symbols dates to 1873, in a drawing by Alexander Cunningham. Since then, over 4,000 inscribed objects have been discovered, some as far afield as Mesopotamia. In the early 1970s, Iravatham Mahadevan published a corpus and concordance of Indus inscriptions listing 3,700 seals and 417 distinct signs in specific patterns. The average inscription contains five signs, and the longest inscription is only 17 signs long. He also established the direction of writing as right to left.[5]

Some early scholars, starting with Cunningham in 1877, thought that the system was the archetype of the Brāhmī script. Cunningham himself had abandoned that position by 1891,[6] but subsequent variations of this idea have been proposed or supported by scholars such as G.R. Hunter,[7] S. R. Rao, John Newberry,[8] Iravatham Mahadevan,[9][10] Krishna Rao,[11] Subhash Kak[12] some of whom continue to argue for an Indus predecessor of the Brahmic script. Others such as F. Raymond Allchin have somewhat cautiously supported the possibility,[13][14] and even many supporters of the consensus view that Brāhmī probably derives from Aramaic influence do not entirely rule out the possibility of some Indus script influence, pending the discovery of new evidence that might illuminate the murky early history of Brāhmī.[15]

Another possibility for continuity of the Indus tradition is in the Megalithic culture graffiti symbols of South and Central India (and Sri Lanka), which probably do not constitute a linguistic script but may have some overlap with the Indus symbol inventory.[16][17]


Early examples of the symbol system are found in an Early Harappan and Indus civilisation context, dated to possibly as early as the 35th century BC.[18][19] In the Mature Harappan period, from about 2600 BC to 1900 BC, strings of Indus signs are commonly found on flat, rectangular stamp seals as well as many other objects including tools, tablets, ornaments and pottery. These signs were applied in many ways, including carving, chiseling, painting and embossing, and the objects themselves were also made of many different materials, such as soapstone, bone, shell, terracotta, sandstone, copper, silver and gold.[20]

Late Harappan[edit]

After 1900 BC, the systematic use of the symbols ended, after the final stage of the Mature Harappan civilization. A few Harappan signs have been claimed to appear until as late as around 1100 BC (the beginning of the Indian Iron Age). Onshore explorations near Bet Dwarka in Gujarat revealed the presence of late Indus seals depicting a 3-headed animal, earthen vessel inscribed in what is claimed to be a late Harappan script, and a large quantity of pottery similar to Lustrous Red Ware bowl and Red Ware dishes, dish-on-stand, perforated jar and incurved bowls which are datable to the 16th century BC in Dwarka, Rangpur and Prabhas. The thermoluminescence date for the pottery in Bet Dwaraka is 1528 BC. This evidence has been used to claim that a late Harappan script was used until around 1500 BC.[21]


Inscription of ten characters from Dholavira

The characters are largely pictorial but includes many abstract signs. The inscriptions are thought to have been mostly written from right to left, but sometimes follows a boustrophedonic style. The number of principal signs is about 400, comparable to the typical sign inventory of a logo-syllabic script.

Decipherability question[edit]

An opposing hypothesis that has been offered by Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, is that these symbols were nonlinguistic signs which instead symbolised families, clans, gods, and religious concepts.[22] In a 2004 article, Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel presented a number of arguments that the Indus script is nonlinguistic, principal among them being the extreme brevity of the inscriptions, the existence of too many rare signs (increasing over the 700-year period of the Mature Harappan civilization), and the lack of the random-looking sign repetition typical of language.[23]

Asko Parpola, reviewing the Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel thesis in 2005, states that their arguments "can be easily controverted".[24] He cites the presence of a large number of rare signs in Chinese, and emphasizes that there is "little reason for sign repetition in short seal texts written in an early logo-syllabic script". Revisiting the question in a 2007 lecture,[25] Parpola takes on each of the 10 main arguments of Farmer et al., presenting counterarguments for each. He states that "even short noun phrases and incomplete sentences qualify as full writing if the script uses the rebus principle to phonetize some of its signs".

A 2009 paper[26] published by Rajesh P N Rao, Iravatham Mahadevan, and others in the journal Science challenged the argument that the Indus script might have been a nonlinguistic symbol system. The paper concludes that the conditional entropy of Indus inscriptions closely matches those of linguistic systems like the Sumerian logo-syllabic system, Old Tamil, Rig Vedic Sanskrit etc., though they are careful to stress that this does not mean that the script is linguistic. A follow-up study elaborated on these claims.[27] Sproat in turn notes a number of misunderstandings in Rao et al., a lack of discriminative power in their model, and that applying their model to known non-linguistic systems such as Mesopotamian deity symbols produces similar results to the Indus script. Their responses, and Sproat's reply, were published in Computational Linguistics in December 2010.[28] The June 2014 issue of Language carries a paper by Sproat that provides further evidence that Rao "et al."'s methodology is flawed.[29]

Attempts at decipherment[edit]

Further information: Harappan language

Over the years, numerous decipherments have been proposed, but there is no established scholarly consensus.[30] The following factors are usually regarded as the biggest obstacles for a successful decipherment:

  • The underlying language has not been identified though some 300 loanwords in the Rigveda are a good starting point for comparison.[31][32]
  • The average length of the inscriptions is less than five signs, the longest being only 17 signs (and a sealing of combined inscriptions of just 27 signs).[33]
  • No bilingual texts (like a Rosetta Stone) have been found.

The topic is popular among amateur researchers, and there have been various (mutually exclusive) decipherment claims.[34]

Dravidian hypothesis[edit]

The Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov surmised that the symbols represent a logosyllabic script and suggested, based on computer analysis, an underlying agglutinative Dravidian language as the most likely candidate for the underlying language.[35] Knorozov's suggestion was preceded by the work of Henry Heras, who suggested several readings of signs based on a proto-Dravidian assumption.[36]

The Finnish scholar Asko Parpola writes that the Indus script and Harappan language "most likely to have belonged to the Dravidian family".[37] Parpola led a Finnish team in the 1960s-80s that vied with Knorozov's Soviet team in investigating the inscriptions using computer analysis. Based on a proto-Dravidian assumption, they proposed readings of many signs, some agreeing with the suggested readings of Heras and Knorozov (such as equating the "fish" sign with the Dravidian word for fish "min") but disagreeing on several other readings. A comprehensive description of Parpola's work until 1994 is given in his book Deciphering the Indus Script.[38] The discovery in Tamil Nadu of a late Neolithic (early 2nd millennium BC, i.e. post-dating Harappan decline) stone celt allegedly marked with Indus signs has been considered by some to be significant for the Dravidian identification.[39][40]

Iravatham Mahadevan, who supports the Dravidian hypothesis, says, "we may hopefully find that the proto-Dravidian roots of the Harappan language and South Indian Dravidian languages are similar. This is a hypothesis [...] But I have no illusions that I will decipher the Indus script, nor do I have any regret".[41]

In May 2007, the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department found pots with arrow-head symbols during an excavation in Melaperumpallam near Poompuhar. These symbols are claimed to have a striking resemblance to seals unearthed in Mohenjo-daro Pakistan in the 1920s.[42]

"Sanskritic" hypothesis[edit]

Indian archaeologist Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao claimed to have deciphered the Indus script. Postulating uniformity of the script over the full extent of Indus-era civilization, he compared it to the Phoenician Alphabet, and assigned sound values based on this comparison. His decipherment results in an "Sanskritic" reading, including the numerals aeka, tra, chatus, panta, happta/sapta, dasa, dvadasa, sata (1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 100).[43] He notes a number of striking similarities in shape and form between the late Harappan characters and the Phoenician letters, arguing than the Phoenician script evolved from the Harappan script, challenging the classical theory that the first alphabet was Proto-Sinaitic.[44]

John E. Mitchiner, has dismissed some of these attempts at decipherment. Mitchiner mentions that "a more soundly-based but still greatly subjective and unconvincing attempt to discern an Indo-European basis in the script has been that of Rao".[45]

Evidence for a continuity between Indus and Brahmi can be seen in the graphic similarities between Brahmi and the late Harappan script, where the ten most common ligatures correspond with the form of one of the ten most common glyphs in Brahmi.[46] There is also corresponding evidence of continuity in the use of numerals[47][48] Further support for this continuity comes from statistical analysis of the relationship carried out by Das.[49] According to Subhash Kak, Indus script is likely to have influenced Semitic scripts through the early second millennium BCE presence of the Indic people in West Asia.[50]


The Indus symbols have been assigned the ISO 15924 code "Inds". It was proposed for encoding in Unicode's Supplementary Multilingual Plane in 1999; however, the Unicode Consortium still list the proposal in pending status.[51]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "'Earliest writing' found". Retrieved 2 September 2014. 
  2. ^ "Evidence for Indus script dated to ca. 3500 BCE". Retrieved 2 September 2014. 
  3. ^ Edwin Bryant. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University. p. 178. 
  4. ^ (Possehl, 1996)
  5. ^ "Write signs for Indus script?". Nature India. 2009-05-31. Retrieved 2009-06-01. 
  6. ^ Bühler, Georg (1898), On the origin of the Indian Brahma alphabet (2nd ed.), Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner, pp. 2–3 
  7. ^ Hunter, G.R. (1934), The Script of Harappa and Mohenjodaro and Its Connection with Other Scripts, Studies in the history of culture, London:K. Paul, Trench, Trubner 
  8. ^ "Indus script monographs - Volumes 1-7", p.10-20, 1980, John Newberry
  9. ^ "Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions", p.6, Jagat Pati Joshi, Asko Parpola
  10. ^ "Senarat Paranavitana Commemoration Volume", p.277, Senarat Paranavitana, Leelananda Prematilleka, Johanna Engelberta van Lohuizen-De Leeuw, BRILL.
  11. ^ "An Encyclopaedia of Indian Archaeology", Amalananda Ghosh, p.362, 1990
  12. ^ Patel, P.G., Pandey, P., Rajgor, D. (2007) The Indic Scripts: Palaeographic and Linguistic Perspectives. D.K. Printworld.
  13. ^ Goody, Jack (1987), The Interface Between the Written and the Oral, Cambridge University Press, pp. 301–302 (note 4) 
  14. ^ Allchin, F.Raymond; Erdosy, George (1995), The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia: The Emergence of Cities and States, Cambridge University Press, p. 336 
  15. ^ Salomon, Richard, On The Origin Of The Early Indian Scripts: A Review Article. Journal of the American Oriental Society 115.2 (1995), 271–279 
  16. ^ Mahadevan, Iravatham (2004), Megalithic pottery inscription and a Harappa tablet:A case of extraordinary resemblance, 
  17. ^ Ray, Himanshu Prabha (2006), "Inscribed pots, emerging identities", in Patrick Olivelle, Between the Empires : Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE, Oxford University Press, pp. 121–122 
  18. ^ Meadow, Richard H.; Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark (2001-07-02). "Excavations at Harappa 2000–2001: New insights on Chronology and City Organization". In Jarrige, C.; Lefèvre, V. South Asian Archaeology 2001. Paris: Collège de France. ISBN 978-2-8653830-1-6. Retrieved 2013-05-27. 
  19. ^ Whitehouse, David (1999-05-04). "'Earliest writing' found". BBC News Online (BBC). Archived from the original on 2014-08-21. Retrieved 2014-08-21. 
  20. ^ Kenoyer, J. Mark; Meadow, Richard H. (2010). "Inscribed Objects from Harappa Excavations 1986-2007". In Parpola, Asko; Pande, B.M.; Koskikallio, Petteri. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. Volume 3: New material, untraced objects, and collections outside India and Pakistan - Part 1: Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. p. xlviii. 
  21. ^ Sullivan, S. M. (2011) Indus Script Dictionary, page viii
  22. ^ Farmer et al. (2004)
  23. ^ Lawler, Andrew. 2004. The Indus script: Write or wrong? Science, 306:2026–2029.
  24. ^ (Parpola, 2005, p. 37)
  25. ^ (Parpola, 2008).
  26. ^ Rao, R.P.N. et al. (6 May 2009). "Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script". Science 324. doi:10.1126/science.1170391. 
  27. ^ Rao, R.P.N. (April 2010). "Probabilistic Analysis of an Ancient Undeciphered Script". IEEE Computer 43 (4): 76–80. doi:10.1109/mc.2010.112. 
  28. ^ Computational Linguistics, Volume 36, Issue 4, December 2010.
  29. ^, R. Sproat, 2014, "A Statistical Comparison of Written Language and Nonlinguistic Symbol Systems". Language, Volume 90, Issue 2, June 2014.
  30. ^ Gregory L. Possehl. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Rowman Altamira. p. 136. 
  31. ^ FBJ Kuiper, Aryans in the Rigveda, Amsterdam/Atlanta 1991
  32. ^ M. Witzel underlines the prefixing nature of these words and calls them Para-Munda,a language related to but not belonging to Proto-Munda; see: Witzel, M. Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Ṛgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic), EJVS Vol. 5,1, 1999, 1-67
  33. ^ Longest Indus inscription
  34. ^ see e.g. Egbert Richter and N. S. Rajaram for examples.
  35. ^ (Knorozov 1965)
  36. ^ (Heras, 1953)
  37. ^ Edwin Bryant. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford. p. 183. ISBN 9780195169478. 
  38. ^ (Parpola, 1994)
  39. ^ (Subramanium 2006; see also A Note on the Muruku Sign of the Indus Script in light of the Mayiladuthurai Stone Axe Discovery by I. Mahadevan (2006)
  40. ^ "Significance of Mayiladuthurai find - The Hindu". May 1, 2006. 
  41. ^ Interview at
  42. ^ Subramaniam, T. S. (May 1, 2006). "From Indus Valley to coastal Tamil Nadu". The Hindu (Chennai, India). Retrieved 2008-05-23. 
  43. ^ Sreedharan (2007). A Manual of Historical Research Methodology. South Indian Studies. p. 268. 
  44. ^ Robinson, Andrew. Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts. 2002
  45. ^ J.E. Mitchiner: Studies in the Indus Valley Inscriptions, p.5, with reference to S.R. Rao: Lothal and the Indus Civilisation (ch.10), Bombay 1978.
  46. ^ Kak, S. (1988). A frequency analysis of the Indus script. Cryptologia 12: 129-143.
  47. ^ Kak, S. (1990). Indus and Brahmi - further connections, Cryptologia 14: 169-183.
  48. ^ Kak, Subhash (1994), "The evolution of early writing in India", Indian Journal of History of Science 28: 375–388 
  49. ^ Das, S., Ahuja, A., Natarajan, B., Panigrahi, B.K. (2009) Multi-objective optimization of Kullback-Leibler divergence between Indus and Brahmi writing. World Congress on Nature & Biologically Inspired Computing, 2009. NaBIC 2009. 1282 - 1286. ISBN 978-1-4244-5053-4
  50. ^ Kak, S. (2005). Akhenaten, Surya, and the Rigveda. in "The Golden Chain" Govind Chandra Pande (editor), CRC, 2005.
  51. ^ Everson 1999 and [1]


External links[edit]